Not Saussure

January 3, 2007

New Labour, Education and social policy

Filed under: Community, Education, Politics — notsaussure @ 2:45 pm

Via Fabian Tassano’s Mediocracy, two dreadful articles by Ben Rogers of the New Labour think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research. Well, I’ll have to take his word for it on one of them, since it’s vanished behind a pay-per-view and I’m buggered if I’m paying good money to read something that apparently not only thinks that compulsory voting is a good idea but that this is proved by the fact that’s what they do in Belgium.

The other one, however, about schools, is available online and will, I hope, remain so because I’ve just posted the .pdf (until someone tells me to take it down). This is a stinker, and not only for the reasons Fabian so succinctly lists.

Mr Rogers tells us,

Nurseries and schools now carry an enormous burden of progressive ambition. Whether the problem is rising obesity, anti-social behaviour, falling social mobility, low voter turnout or racism, the government’s instinct is to look to schools to fix it. Over the last six months, ministers have announced plans or mooted proposals to introduce Saturday schooling, to further improve school lunches, promote cookery classes and give more space to history—especially British history—in the curriculum. And this against a background of plans to establish Sure Start childcare centres in “every community” in England, increase state funding for early-years education (by 2010, every child over two will be entitled to 15 hours of free nursery care a week), dramatically extend after-school activities for older children, and open school playgrounds and other facilities up for local community use.

Very true; show this government a problem and its instinct is to tell you it’ll solve it for you, whether you want it to or not. What better example, I thought, could there be the ‘Rationalist’ tendency, as described by Michael Oakeshott in his critique of Rationalism In Politics (an uncannily prescient description of Blair; just read the essay, substituting ‘moderniser’ or ‘Blairite’ for ‘rationalist’, and you’ll see what I mean):

The evanescence of imperfection may be said to be the first item of the creed of the Rationalist. He is not devoid of humility; he can imagine a problem which would remain impervious to the onslaught of his own reason. But what he cannot imagine is politics which do not consist in solving problems, or a political problem of which there is no ‘rational’ solution at all. Such a problem must be counterfeit. And the ‘rational’ solution of any problem is, in its nature, the perfect solution. There is no place in his scheme for a ‘best in the circumstances’, only a place for ‘the best’; because the function of reason is precisely to surmount circumstances.

And how well, I thought, Mr Rogers identifies precisely the same damaging tendency as does Oakeshott:

From the earliest days of his emergence, the Rationalist has taken an ominous interest in education. He has a respect for ‘brains’, a great belief in training them, and is determined that cleverness shall be encouraged and shall receive its reward of power. But what is this education in which the Rationalist believes? It is certainly not an initiation into the moral and intellectual habits and achievements of his society, an entry into the partnership between present and past, a sharing of concrete knowledge; for the Rationalist, all this would be an education in nescience, both valueless and mischievous. It is a training in technique, a training, that is, in the half of knowledge which can be learnt from books when they are used as cribs. And the Rationalist’s affected interest in education escapes the suspicion of being a mere subterfuge for imposing himself more firmly on society, only because it is clear that he is as deluded as his pupils. He sincerely believes that a training in technical knowledge is the only education worth while, because he is moved by the faith that there is no knowledge, in the proper sense, except technical knowledge. He believes that a training in ‘public administration’ is the surest defence against the flattery of a demagogue and the lies of a dictator.

It’s particularly apt, I thought, that Mr Rogers uses cookery classes as an example, since cookery is one of Oakeshott’s examples of the limitations of purely technical knowledge. Knowledge, Oakeshott argues, always has two aspects; the technical, which can be reduced to a set of rules and taught in a correspondence course, or imposed by departmental circulars and detailed prescriptions about ‘best practice’, and the practical:

The technique (or part of it) of driving a motor car on English roads is to be found in the Highway Code, the technique of cookery is contained in the cookery book, and the technique of discovery in natural science or in history is in their rules of research, of observation and verification. The second sort of knowledge I will call practical, because it exists only in use, is not reflective and (unlike technique) cannot be formulated in rules. This does not mean, however, that it is an esoteric sort of knowledge. It means only that the method by which it may be shared and becomes common knowledge is not the method of formulated doctrine. And if we consider it from this point of view, it would not, I think, be misleading to speak of it as traditional knowledge. In every activity this sort of knowledge is also involved; the mastery of any skill, the pursuit of any concrete activity is impossible without it.

These two sorts of knowledge, then, distinguishable but inseparable, are the twin components of the knowledge involved in every concrete human activity. In a practical art, such as cookery, nobody supposes that the knowledge that belongs to the good cook is confined to what is or may be written down in the cookery book; technique and what I have called practical knowledge combine to make skill in cookery wherever it exists. And the same is true of the fine arts, of painting, of music, of poetry; a high degree of technical knowledge, even where it is both subtle and ready, is one thing; the ability to create a work of art, the ability to compose something with real music qualities, the ability to write a great sonnet, is another, and requires, in addition to technique, this other sort of knowledge.

Oakeshott continues,

Technical knowledge, in short, can be both taught and learned in the simplest meanings of these words. On the other hand, practical knowledge can neither be taught nor learned, but only imparted and acquired. It exists only in practice, and the only way to acquire it is by apprenticeship to a master–not because the master can teach it (he cannot), but because it can be acquired only by continuous contact with one who is perpetually practicing it.

The problem with what he characterises as ‘rationalism’ is that it denies the validity of practical knowledge altogether; because it can’t be reduced to a set of axioms and principles, it seems to the rationalist not to be knowledge at all. On the contrary, it’s the sort of hide-bound traditionalism that gets in the way of modernisation, of achieving the sensibly planned and managed — through modern management techniques, which can be taught — modern society that New Labour wish to achieve for us all.

Oakeshott obviously extends this far beyond activities like cooking and driving a car; he argues — convincingly, at least to me — that this obsession with the reduction of everything, including government, to technique designed to manage society towards particular desirable goals is not only self-defeating but corrosive. The rationalist (or Blairite moderniser) wants, with the best will in the world, to make us good citizens. This, he thinks, is best achieved by analyzing, rationally, what constitute good citizenship and and good government and then instituting a rational programme of reform or modernisation to achieve them. Traditional practices just get in the way; it’s precisely what the Prime Minister was talking about when he said,

I have come to the conclusion that part of the problem in this whole area has been the absence of a proper, considered intellectual and political debate about the nature of liberty in the modern world. In other words, crime, immigration, security – because of the emotions inevitably stirred, the headlines that naturally scream, the multiplicity of the problems raised – desperately, urgently need a rational debate, from first principles and preferably unrelated to the immediate convulsion of the moment.

What’s more, I believe we can get to a sensible, serious and effective answer to these issues and build a consensus in favour of them. But we can’t do it unless the argument is won at a far more fundamental level than hitherto.

The problem with the criminal justice system, as he sees it is that it is

a system built not for another decade but another age. So we end up fighting 21st century problems with 19th century solutions

That is, it just gets in the way. The value of traditional solutions, arrived at not through the application of theory but by the practical experience of the courts in dealing with problems not ‘from first principles’ but from dealing with real people in real situations, is, in this analysis, not only worthless; they are a positive impediment if they get in the way of solving the very real problem immediately to hand. The ‘man of conservative temperament’, Oakeshott argues in another essay, On Being Conservative,

believes that a known good is not lightly to be surrendered for an unknown better. He is not in love with what is dangerous and difficult; he is unadventurous; he has no impulse to sail uncharted seas; for him there is no magic in being lost, bewildered, or shipwrecked. If forced to navigate the unknown, he sees virtue in heaving the lead every inch of the way.

He believes, that is, that it is best to address the immediate problem not by declaring that we face unprecedented problems so we must immediately dispense with the tools that have proved their utility over the centuries and sit down and devise new tools, new solutions ‘from first principles’, because that leads to disaster. He’s cautious and prefers to stick with the known not through timidity but because he knows it has been proven to work practice and prefers the known good to an hypothetical, untried, supposed improvement.

The rationalist, or moderniser, doesn’t see it this way, of course. And as changes have — as inevitably they will — unlooked-for effects and present their own problems, he looks for more planned and rational solutions. To take some of the examples that Mr Rogers so rightly identifies, someone of a conservative temperament might say that radical changes, reforms, in social organisation are bound to have unlooked-for effects. Families and family life are, because of economic changes and government policy, very different from what they were a generation ago. This has had all manner of effects — which, in turn, affect each other — on eating habits, the socialisation of children and heaven knows what else.

I say this not because I want to turn the clock back, were such a thing possible, but as a simple statement of fact. When I was a child, at least in the social background from which I came, families ate together at home not least because that was that was the most convenient and economical arrangement; the world of work was organised on the basis that’s what people did and, because there were few fast-food outlets other than the chip shop and we didn’t have microwaves and we had far fewer convenience foods (at least ones that tasted any good), it made sense to prepare just the one meal. That’s certainly how I learned to cook — not from lessons at school but from my parents. My father was particularly insistent that cooking was an important skill; as he said, he’d had to cook for himself before he got married, since he certainly hadn’t been able to afford to eat in restaurants all the time, and it had proved a vital skill when he had to care for his first wife through a long and fatal illness. So it did for me, when I sadly found myself in precisely the same situation.

And, of course, all sorts of things follow — good and bad — from sitting down as family to eat together. It meant I was expected to maintain a certain routine at home, for one thing, and that everyone in the family had to learn to tolerate and negotiate each other’s foibles and irritating habits while trying to moderate their own. I’m not trying to romanticise this; just pointing out that the option not so to do — by slinging something in the microwave and eating in peace at a time of one’s choosing or going out to Pizza Hut with my mates — wasn’t then available to either me or my parents, much though we doubtless would frequently have preferred it.

The idea though, that you can identify the various unwelcome changes that have flowed, along with the welcome ones, from changing forms of social organisation — poor eating habits, children not being forced to do their homework before dinner (‘Or no TV’ — no chance 40 years ago of being able to watch your own TV in your room, because the things were too expensive), poorly socialised children — and then fix them by providing specific activities and training at school is ludicrous. It doesn’t work and it detracts from the purpose of the school. As Oakeshott says, at the conclusion of his essay on rationalism,

First, we do our best to destroy parental authority [because of its alleged abuse], then we sentimentally deplore the scarcity of ‘good homes’, and we end by creating substitutes which complete the work of destruction.

Anyway, as I say, Mr Rogers describes, to my mind quite accurately, the ways government has identified particular problems caused by changes in family and social organisation and has then set about using schools and ‘training’ (be it in cookery or ‘citizenship’ ) in an attempt to alleviate these problems by creating what it sees as substitutes for what has been lost.

‘What,’ I wondered, ‘is Fabian Tassano so upset about? Mr Rogers identifies, perfectly accurately, many of the ills of state intervention and the corruption of schools by trying to use them not as schools but as — in Mr Roger’s words,

something closer to community centres, offering not only education for children, but classes for adults, facilities for community groups, a playground for families at the weekend and in some cases a place where children and parents can make contact with a doctor, police officer and other public servants. Once, life revolved around church and chapel. Now it is being organised around nursery and school.

‘Why,’ I asked myself, does Mr Tassano call Mr Rogers ‘You awful, awful man’ for having so accurately diagnosed the problem?’

Then I came Mr Rogers’ peroration, and I realised my mistake. Mr Rogers writes,

What should we make of this? By and large, the new expectations being placed on schools represent a reasonable reaction to the developments outlined above. Failure to provide better support for parents with young children looks in retrospect like one of the great shortcomings of the 20th-century welfare state

and he goes on to outline ways in which schools must be better equipped and managed in these attempts to provide ‘better support for parents’. But that’s not all. Schools, he argues are not sufficient on their own to this task;

Parents with “at risk” children need more support, whether in the form of parenting classes, training or help getting off drugs—though no one in government quarrels with that.

More classes, more training, more telling you how to live your own life, more complaining that people don’t behave responsibly so they must have more responsibilities taken from them by helpful and benevolent social workers. No recognition of the fact that the only way you learn to live responsibly is by trying so to, and learning the hard way what happens when you don’t; life, in Oakeshott’s terms, is self-evidently a matter of

practical knowledge [which] can neither be taught nor learned, but only imparted and acquired.

And it gets worse; Mr Rogers concludes,

As sociologists like Robert Sampson have shown, the main thing that distinguishes poor areas with low rates of youth delinquency and crime from poor areas with high rates is that the latter lack friendship networks and active civic groups, and allow teenagers to hang out unsupervised. Informal support is arguably particularly important for at-risk children, because their parents tend to be distrustful of any official institutions. We need to extend schools, but not at the expense of building this extra-institutional civic capacity.

Well, of course you get high rates of young delinquency and crime when you

allow teenagers to hang out unsupervised

if you’ve made this completely natural aspect of being a teenager something that’s highly suspicious and probably an act of ‘Anti-Social Behaviour,’ you lummox! No wonder

their parents tend to be distrustful of any official institutions

when the official institutions behave like that. Official institutions that can apparently barely distinguish between hanging round with your mates and putting bricks through people’s windows for the fun of it deserve to be distrusted. The whole point about the ‘extra-institutional civic capacity’, the loss of which Rogers so deplores,is that it is ‘extra-institutional’, that it is, in Oakeshott’s phrase, ‘the unselfconscious following of a tradition of moral behaviour’ rather than something organised or built by well-meaning state intervention.

‘Awful, awful man,’ indeed. And the most awful thing is that Rogers and people like him can’t see that their well-intentioned interventions can only make matters worse. Left to their own devices, with the state staying well in the background to provide a code and set of sanctions of last resort, people by and large manage to find a reasonably acceptable way of getting along together because they have to. Rogers and his kind are blinded by their own arrogance — which they can’t recognise as such.

Life isn’t perfect; we live in a fallen world. And by saying that we can perfect it, that we can prevent, if only we try hard enough, people from behaving irresponsibly or anti-socially by state action, we just make things worse.


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7 Comments »

  1. […] school as community supervisor If you read nothing else today, go and look at Not Saussure on government plans to make schools the ‘hub’ of the community – and the place where […]

    Pingback by The school as community supervisor « The ARCH Blog — January 3, 2007 @ 5:42 pm

  2. You quite rightly identify that which I only allude to, namely that Rogers’s apparent “concern” with creeping social engineering is just a dishonest pretense designed to provide a sop to those who may be a little concerned about it. The objective is to look like you’re taking their side, in order to reassure them that everything in the garden is lovely. It’s really no more genuine than Gordon Brown claiming he’s a fan of the conservative writer Gertrude Himmelfarb (according to a Telegraph article a few months ago).

    They really ought to make Michael Oakeshott compulsory reading for first year philosophy students, instead of John Rawls. Poor Oakeshott is practically unheard of these days in philosophy faculties.

    Comment by Fabian Tassano — January 3, 2007 @ 7:44 pm

  3. Good and interesting point. It strikes me that Rogers also neglects the issue that what you have documented are changes that have occured very recently and that society will respond organically eventually to them- it just takes time- a luxury that he thinking in five year chunks doesn’t seem to beleive in.

    Comment by Gracchi — January 4, 2007 @ 1:44 am

  4. Indeed, Gracchi, though I think the problem’s deeper-rooted than just thinking in terms of 5-year-chunks — though, having said that, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at Hazel Blears’ recent comment that the fact people’s drinking habits don’t seem to changed much in the 13-odd months since the licensing laws were relaxed led her to conclude that

    “I don’t know whether we’ll ever get to be in a European drinking culture, where you go out and have a single glass of wine. Maybe it’s our Anglo-Saxon mentality”

    Rather, I think, it’s politicians’ — and, to be fair, the public’s — belief that there’s a great deal governments can, or should try to, do about people’s behaviour. By and large, I don’t think there is, other than on specific issues; attitudes to drinking and driving have, for example, certainly changed over the last 30 years, largely because of government pressure, and you could certainly reduce the number of burglaries, street robberies and cases of shoplifting by giving addicts heroin on the NHS.

    But the idea that government can come up with a scheme to make teenagers better behaved (whatever that means in practice), or reduce crime in general or enhance a sense of community or whatever through government action is utterly wrong-headed and, in practice, is just going to matters worse.

    We’ve most of us come to accept that there are limits to what governments can do, or should try to do, to affect people’s economic behaviour to any great extent in order to achieve desired outcomes; we’re more or less comfortable to let the ‘market (i.e. individuals) decide’ on how best to create jobs and wealth rather than to have detailed central plans for how government can achieve this. But, somewhat illogically, we seem all-too-ready to demand government create better social behaviour. Doesn’t work, to my mind.

    As I said when we discussed the Today Programme Christmas Repeal business, I would be more than happy to vote for a party — any party — that said, ‘We don’t actually have any radical or ambitious plans. We’re going to concentrate on tidying-up existing legislation and getting rid of it where it’s not necessary or not working’. I can’t see it going down too well in general, though.

    It’s hardly an original thought, but in Trollope’s Palliser novels, Plantagenet, despite his career as Chancellor and then Prime Minister, doesn’t have any grand schemes he particularly wants to put forward other than his obsession with decimalisation, which doesn’t get anywhere; indeed, it’s seen as a harmless eccentricity of his rather than as anything else. Nevertheless, Trollope certainly seems to think his career was by no means a failure.

    I see in the Wikipedia entry for Oakeshott that he used

    the image (possibly borrowed from the Marquess of Halifax, a seventeenth-century English author whom he admired) of a metaphorical ship of state which has “neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat”.

    I wish a party would campaign on that platform, though, as I say, I fear they wouldn’t be too successful.

    Comment by notsaussure — January 4, 2007 @ 3:54 pm

  5. Britblog Roundup #99

    Welcome to the 99th Britblog Roundup. Rather short today I’m afraid, a combination of winter holidays and the fact that I am still on dial up so not surfing and adding entries. Should be better next week and you can

    Trackback by Tim Worstall — January 7, 2007 @ 2:03 pm

  6. excellent. You are my Blog Post of the Week on Blogger TV on 18 Doughty St tonight 9-10pm

    Comment by Rachel — January 8, 2007 @ 8:31 pm

  7. Why, thank you both Tim and Rachel; I’m afraid I wasn’t able to watch 18 Doughty Street, ‘cos they seem to be having problems with ‘streaming’ (or that’s what it says on their site). You broke it, didn’t you?

    Comment by notsaussure — January 8, 2007 @ 10:29 pm


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